Preparing for Online Finals
The Weingarten Center collaborated this week with students on the FGLI Dean’s Advisory Board in the College of Arts and Sciences to offer three workshops that integrated exam preparation strategies with content tutoring for Math 104, Economics 001, and Chemistry 101. Our expert tutors shared phenomenal insights into their approaches to creating a finals prep plan, finding accountability and support through study groups, and proactively managing the stress and anxiety of taking high-stakes exams.
In the following videos, Gabe, Valerie, and Ryan ask our tutors to share their unique approaches to Math, Economics, and Chemistry finals, but many of their key insights could be applied to any course at Penn.
Thank you to FGLI DAB and our fabulous tutors for creating this resource! We also want to encourage all students to schedule appointments with our learning specialists by visiting MyWLRC and selecting “Learning Resources Appointments.” Creating a study plan for each of your courses is a great way to ensure a successful end to the fall semester.
Multiple Choice Exams: How to Prep
The Moment of Truth
As a sophomore at Penn, and after two unfortunate biology midterms, I knew I had to change my study habits. For other classes, like philosophy and chemistry, I prepared for the tasks I would perform on the exam. I wrote outlines for philosophy and solved problems for chemistry, so I thought that answering a ton of multiple-choice questions (MCQs) before the final exam would work just fine. I mean, how many different ways could I possibly be asked about the content?
Turns out there were enough ways for me to be very confused on that exam. In fact, there are several types of MCQs: single-correct answer, best answer, negative, multiple true-false, and multiple response. Each of them can be used to test a variety of thinking skills from rote memorization to critical evaluation (Burton et. al., 1990).
To Prepare Well, Train your Thinking Skills
Aside from understanding the content, in order to prepare well, we need to develop the skills necessary to perform well. In the case of multiple-choice exams at the university level, these skills are application, analysis, and evaluation, primarily (see Figure 1). We can train those skills by getting creative with the study activities we engage in! Let’s get to know multiple choice questions a little better first, however.
The Primary Objective: Analyze and Evaluate
Multiple choice questions (MCQs) are composed of a stem (prompt), a correct answer and two or more incorrect statements. The primary objective for many types of MCQs is to analyze and evaluate each statement (Burton et. al., 1990). Part of our studying, then, should be focused on training our ability to analyze information in the stem and alternatives and to evaluate the correctness or relevance of each choice.
Easy, right? Well, not quite. Without test questions and some guidance or structure for how to think, it can be challenging to analyze information in an engaging way. This is why I suggest using a browser-based digital flashcard maker called, Quizlet!
With Quizlet, you and your study group—if you have one—can import content from Google Docs, Word, or Excel and turn them into flashcards. Quizlet, then, allows you to self-test in 4 different ways and there is even a mobile app called, Quizlet Learn! I think the Matching and True/False question types are particularly helpful because each type of question helps you train your ability to analyze possible answers. If you plan to use the Multiple-Choice question type, just make sure that you insert questions as your terms instead of a single word or phrase.
Just One Disclaimer
With that said, I have to make one disclaimer. Because Quizlet uses a computer program to generate these questions, it may be easier to choose the correct answer than on an exam. The mobile app claims to modify the difficulty of questions as you go, but I think this can only take you so far. Go to the next level by identifying any decent questions and modify the statements, the stems (the prompts at the top) or the distractors (incorrect answers) to make them more challenging. This process of modifying and improving questions will help you to train your ability to analyze and evaluate as well.
Other Great Alternatives
Even if you decide that Quizlet does not fit your specific needs, transform your study sessions by taking the time to apply, analyze, and evaluate your course content! Other methods include:
- Making concept maps to identify the connections between the big ideas in your lectures
- Creating flow charts to think through the steps in a pathway or process
- Annotating important representations like pathways, graphs, and diagrams
- Explaining your problem-solving process in words
Learning instructors would be happy to discuss multiple choice exam prepartation with you more in a virtual appointment! Call us at 215-573-9235 today!
By Staff Writer: Gabriel Angrand, STEM Learning Instructor
Burton, J. S., Sudweeks, R. R., Merrill, P. F., & Wood, B. (1991). How to prepare better multiple-choice test items: Guidelines for university faculty. Department of Instructional Science, Brigham Young University Testing Services. Retrieved April 17, 2020 from http://testing.byu.edu/info/handbooks/betterItems.pdf.
Armstrong, P. (2015). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Vanderbilt University. Center for Teaching. Retrieved April 17, 2020 from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/.
Refresh Your Semester Plan and Stay Motivated
With the end of the Spring semester in sight for many Penn students, we’ve been hearing from a lot of you that it is hard to keep motivation high. First, the good news…you’re almost there!
Even though graduation and other end-of-year celebrations won’t be in person this year, that doesn’t make your achievements any less remarkable. Repeat after me…I am doing an amazing job at a really tough time.
On the other hand, the semester is not over. We know the last mile of any race can be the hardest. As long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will get through. You’ve got this.
When we are tired, burned out, and stressed, those steps turn into baby steps. And that’s okay. Pause for a minute, put both feet on the floor, and take three deep breaths. Next, take a moment to notice what’s around you. Is there a pile of papers or a collection of old coffee cups? Is your computer’s desktop cluttered with documents? Take a moment to organize your physical or digital learning space.
Once you are feeling a little more focused, it’s time to make a plan. Think about everything you need to get done by the end of the semester. During these times of transition, it can be helpful to make a little chart to keep track of how things are different. It feels good to have everything in one place. Yours could look something like this:
Now it’s time to take all of those larger assignments and break them into smaller pieces. Using a visual organizer tool like this one can be helpful. Don’t be afraid to break out the colored pens and pencils. You can find an electronic version of the planner along with some of our other favorite resources here.
“Focus on what you can control. Let go of what you cannot”
This is one of our favorite sayings, and it’s especially relevant right now. Anytime a thought pops up like “when will we return to normal,” or “I can’t study very well at home,” just say to yourself “can’t control,” and try to let it go. Going for walks and getting into a regular sleep routine also helps. Managing stress is a big part of productivity. If you’d like to check in about your stress or anxiety, CAPS is open for telehealth appointments.
Thinking about what you can control, what about…how you spend your days? You’ve broken down your big assignments. Now put them into your schedule. You can find our weekly planner here.
Remember, what worked for you before may not work now. Or, like going out to study, it might not be possible. You can do this. You are a living, breathing, human work in progress. Every day is a new day. Don’t forget: you’ve got this.
“Keep what’s working. Let go of what’s not. Adjust where you need to.”
Want to learn more about effective planning and preparation? Register for our upcoming virtual workshop, Succeeding with Final Exams, Papers, & Projects at Home:
By Staff Writer: Jennifer Kobrin, Learning Fellow and current Ed.D. student in Reading/Writing/Literacy at PennGSE
Open Book Exams: Are You Ready?
Open book exams can be illusionary. They appear easy, breezy, and create sweeping horizons because everything is at our fingertips. Read the next question, flip some pages, and pronto—there is the right answer.
Indeed, there is full access to everything: professor’s lecture notes, PowerPoints, textbook(s), homework and quizzes (with solutions!), personal class notes, friend’s class notes, the Internet, and so much more.
Yes, and yes to all the above.
Well, the easy access also becomes the source of murkiness. BECAUSE, access to all and everything comes with a set of caveats.
How will you identify the right answer in a timely manner?
My simple response is by being prepared for an altered mode of exams.
- Maintain study routines: Read, understand, and confirm that you have understood. Practice problems, compare solutions with your results, check if you know how, and check again.
- Whittle down: Identify and compile three resources for each individual exam.
- Create a table of contents: While taking the exam, what you want to focus is on writing the responses correctly and not fishing for the right information. For example, you may want to identify where angular kinetics is situated within the professor’s PP, textbook, and recent quizzes. Mark the page #s. Similarly, you may want to organize the textbook and your class notes about Napoleon by placing sticky notes on similar trending themes. Bookmark websites that were referenced during class.
You can be ready—just with a different mode of preparation. Do not put off preparing for an open book exam until the night before.
Want to learn more about preparing for open book exams? Register for our upcoming virtual workshop, Preparing for Open Book Exams:
You can also schedule a virtual consultation with a learning instructor to discuss your strategies by calling 215-573-9235.
By Staff Writer: Dr. Rashmi Kumar, Associate Director of the Office of Learning Resources and Specialist in STEM Learning
End-of-Semester Action Plan for Graduate Students
As the entire campus community realizes, in a post-turkey haze, that the end of the semester is rapidly approaching, we present some of our best end-of-semester strategies for graduate students. If you are not a graduate student, we suggest you continue reading for the bits of universal wisdom sprinkled throughout.
MAKE A MAP
One of the best ways to get some perspective on a project or to begin preparing for an exam is to return to a blank slate—either a whiteboard or a large piece of paper. It feels daunting at first, but reconstructing (from memory!) your argument or outlining the essential concepts covered in a course shows you what you know while exposing the gaps that you’ll need to prioritize.
WORK IN SHIFTS
An unscheduled day sounds great but is often difficult to productively manage. Planning to “work all day” often leads to procrastination and a guilt spiral. Instead, plan to work in 2 to 3 shifts. Pick one task or a set of related tasks for each shift. Work for 1 – 2 hours, then step away. Initially, you may resist the idea that you can get more done in less time, but concentrated effort always beats pseudo-studying.
SHARE YOUR GOALS
Willpower isn’t a thing. Or, at least, it’s a finicky, unreliable, limited-to-the-point-of-being-irrelevant thing. You can’t trust it to come through for you when you need it, so you’ll need some support. Tell a friend, family member, or the person sitting next to you at the Graduate Student Center what you plan to accomplish today, this week, or this semester. They might not care, but articulating your goals is the first step to achieving them.
CARE FOR YOUR OFFLINE BRAIN
If you’re asking your brain to intensively focus on challenging tasks, you should be nice to it when it’s off the graduate school clock. That may mean turning off notifications and reducing screen time so that you’re not pinging your brain or bathing it in blue light when it’s trying to rest. Sleep is a must. Writing takes longer and is usually worse when you’re very tired.
BUILD UP TO THE HEAVY LIFT
Sitting down to a blank document with a flashing cursor is intimidating. Perfect sentences and fully-formed ideas may not immediately pour out of you. Consider a soft launch: a few sentences scribbled in a notebook, a terrible first draft of an introduction typed into your favorite note-taking app on your phone, or a conversation with a friend over coffee about the argument you’re trying to make and how you’ll defend it.
REMEMBER WHAT’S EXPECTED
The worst thing ever is spilling coffee on the laptop that carries the only saved copy of your paper that you never bothered to email to yourself or connect to a cloud-based system. The second worst thing is casually glancing at an assignment description after you’ve written three-fourths of your essay and realizing that you’re totally off-track. It is worth your time (right now) to re-read that prompt and ensure that you’re doing no more and no less than what has been assigned.
SET A MINIMUM
If you just can’t get yourself to sit down to do the work—you’re not alone! Set a minimum task for each study session. Something, you know, minimal. You could write 5 sentences, read the abstracts of 3 articles, or create a table from your data. The idea is to start. You’ll at least do the minimum and maybe you’ll get on a roll.
If you’re not ready to adopt all seven strategies in the remaining weeks of the semester, we suggest focusing on one or two. If it’s too hard to choose or you just want to talk about a paper, project, or exam—make an appointment with a learning instructor. We’re happy to meet with you through the end of the fall term.
By Staff Writer: Ryan Miller, Director, Office of Learning Resources
Note-Taking: Handwrite or Type?
The Fall semester has begun, triggering an increasingly consequential question for students given the availability of technological resources for note-taking:
To TYPE or HANDWRITE Academic Notes?
There is no right answer for every person and every context. What works for one person, may not work for another. And what works for one course or assignment, may not work for another. Knowing yourself in each situation and the requirements of each course and assignment is key.
Whether you’re working on your dissertation, studying for an exam, or considering a manual or digital method of note-taking, storage, and archiving, we caution you not to reinvent the wheel, if a particular method already works well for you.
That said, if you’re still deciding between handwriting or typing notes, weighing mainly a factor of speed optimization, consider Baer (2014), “By slowing down the process of taking notes, you accelerate learning“.
Wait a minute! Slow down to accelerate???
Yes, it has to do with the brain! “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated” (Baer, 2014). You mean… there is something unique about the act of slowing down and writing that automatically activates neural circuits?
Actually, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. In fact, it is what the slowing down of time makes possible. What are the affordances of time? What can you do by stretching out time? Research suggests that the learner should do something active and stimulating–that is, the opposite of copying, typing, transcribing, and rote memorizing new information.
Baer (2014) suggests that by getting off of the keyboard, and note-taking by hand, “you’ll have to look for representative quotes, summarize concepts, and ask questions about what you don’t understand.”
So… What’s the verdict?
Is it Best to TYPE or HANDWRITE Academic Notes?
The answer is to do something new with the information, to APPLY or SYNTHESIZE it. This is an active and actionable method that the slowing down of time by note-taking can accommodate, if not require.
Baer, D. Here’s why writing things out by hand makes you smarter. Business Insider. December 16, 2014.
By Staff Writer: Min Derry, Learning Fellow
Summer Reflection: Examining Our Academic Writing Processes
Maybe you are taking an alternative summer break and doing community service in a remote pacific village, and taking time in between to soak in the clear ocean air. Or maybe you have accepted an internship position with a financial consulting firm in New York City. Or maybe you have joined a summer co-op opportunity with a technology start-up firm in the CA bay area. Or maybe you are back at your childhood home, getting re-acquainted with your town and civic organizations. Wherever you may be this summer, and however you may have chosen to spend your time, we hope that you will carve out a little time for academic reflection. Here’s a simple framework for reflecting, and doing some meta-cognitive self-assessment so that you can reap the benefits of lessons learned and start your Fall semester in gear:
Reflecting and analyzing your writing
It’s so easy to dust our hands off, catalog our papers away, and turn a new page. And it’s completely natural and understandable to do that since you’ve just spent so much time intensively researching, drafting, and revising your paper. You did your best, submitted your paper, and accepted your grade. Well done, and do step away; however, be intentional about scheduling time to return and assess the product of your labor:
- What type of feedback have you received from your teaching team or peers? What was helpful? Are there areas for further development? Would it be helpful to schedule a follow-up appointment/call with your professor during the summer or in the fall?
- Was the process of conceptualizing your ideas, thesis, and argument coherent for you? How close did you stay to your original plan or how far did you depart from it? Looking back, was the initial scope of your main thesis realistic? What can we learn about zooming in or out in our scope given the requirements of the project?
- Which resources were most helpful? Are there integral literary sources that have become a critical part of your interpretive lens and you know you will be returning to? Are there new journals, research, or professional organizations that you will be utilizing more henceforth? Is there a new theory, practice, or research/data analysis instrument that you have adopted?
- Have you shifted your thinking in any way? Have you added a complementary perspective that helped further stratify or nuance your thinking? Have you developed a deeper understanding of your guiding principles? Have you moved away from your prior positionality to think in a new mode or from a different perspective?
Journal, journal, journal! Keep a writing reflection journal. I know that writing may be the last thing that you may want to do during your summer break, but you may be pleasantly surprised to realize later in the new academic year that these reflections have planted seeds that will germinate new ideas for your forthcoming papers. And most importantly, through reflection, we grow as writers and analysts!
Wishing you a Happy Summer, speckled with opportunities to reflect on your academic writing!
By Staff Writer: Min Derry, Learning Fellow
Managing Successful Transitions: Taking Your Weingarten Skills Off Campus
I remember sitting, terrified, at my college graduation. I clutched the sides of my white plastic lawn chair like it was an ejector seat that could go off at any moment, propelling me from comfortable student life into a reluctant adulthood. At the time, the skills I had perfected through trial and error as a student– like keeping up with class assignments, studying for exams, and writing research papers—seemed entirely disconnected from my new role in the workforce. How would I cope with having a boss and coworkers? What if the pace was too demanding and I couldn’t keep up?
At my first job after college, I worked as an administrative assistant at a busy news magazine. I soon found out that the independent skills I learned from being a college student, such as juggling multiple assignments, keeping a to-do list, and staying on top of my schedule, were all transferrable to the workforce. For example, when I had a big project to tackle at work, I thought of large research papers I had written, and how I had broken them into smaller steps and assigned deadlines.
In my current role as a learning instructor, I often reflect on how the skills we focus on at Weingarten are setting our students up for success not only with coursework, but in their many off campus pursuits. Here are some practical ways you can use Weingarten learning strategies over the summer and beyond:
- Plan your syllabus. A syllabus is really just a roadmap, a kind of project plan with a few over-arching goals, and key dates and deliverables. Think about how you might use a similar syllabus or project plan to stay on track this summer. Remember to pick 3-4 big picture goals.
- Make a summer calendar. Many students love the colorful Weingarten semester calendars, which provide an overall view of key assignments. Why not make your own to plan out major dates and deadlines this summer?
- Use active learning strategies. Whether you are trying to ace an entrance exam for graduate school, or learn a new language for study abroad, remember to use visual diagrams, practice problems, and other techniques to keep your brain active.
By Staff Writer: Jennifer Kobrin, Learning Fellow
“Lifewide Learning:” Developing Resiliency Wherever Life Takes You
Many of us may have heard the term ‘lifelong learning,’ as it relates to an educational journey that may span several decades or even a lifetime. However, this term is often used to refer to the kids of education that happens within formal settings for adults – in classrooms such as on college campuses, or certificate programs that might prepare us for a career in a specific field. The term ‘lifewide learning,’ was created to acknowledge that adult learning happens in a nearly infinite range of places and situations, most of them outside the traditional classroom. Although we generally think of learning as intentional or deliberate, lifewide learning acknowledges that learning frequently happens unintentionally. Navigating these unexpected situations as opportunities for growth, no matter how frustrating, help us to develop resilience.
For students ending the semester
and reflecting on what they learned from classes, the biggest takeaways may not
have been from the syllabus or class assignments. For example, maybe the shock
of receiving a bad grade on an important exam caused you to reexamine your time
management and study strategies in ways that will ultimately help you succeed later
in life. As students across Campus embark on summer internships, or perhaps a
new job after graduation, remember that your biggest opportunities for growth
may also be spontaneous or unplanned. You might find that your next job
experience is something very different than what you expected. Again, rather
than dwelling on this disconnect, be open to what you do learn. Uncomfortable
or challenging situations can be particularly important opportunities for
personal growth, if we are open to the lessons they bring.
 Source: Reischmann, J. (2019). Lifewide learning – Challenges for Andragogy. Journal of Adult Learning, Knowledge and Innovation, 1(1), 43–50. https://doi.org/10.1556/2059.01.2017.2
By Staff Writer: Jennifer Kobrin, Learning Fellow
Study Strategies: A Fresh Take on “Procrastination”
At Weingarten, we like to ask, “What’s your favorite form of procrastination?”
The question is often welcomed with puzzled enthusiasm. Students are at first taken aback by our directness, but find relief in the straightforward candidness and empathy. The discussion that ensues is always lively!
This is the time of the year, Spring semester, when things are ramping up (e.g. 2nd mid-term examinations, finalizing mid-term projects, and launching final term papers), and many students struggle with procrastination.
Perspective is important. Let’s first acknowledge that there are many varied and legitimate reasons for procrastination, with differing impact on the student-scholar. For instance, procrastination can often be a form of perfectionism. Also, procrastination is often a direct result of additive and competing demands upon our schedules. In other words, it is never a character flaw. It is a response, and often, an internal coping mechanism.
Today, I’m offering a fresh take on procrastination: “Is procrastination keeping you from reaching the world or is it helping you to stay connected to the world?”
For instance, if you know that a task only actually takes you 2-hours to complete, is it really necessary to spread it out over two-weeks or 8-hours just because of an arbitrarily imposed external norm?
Imagine instead, what you could do during those extra weeks or hours to nourish your wellness or enrich your other personal, academic or professional goals.
This requires, of course, self-knowledge and (evidence-based) discernment. But no one is born with this precise form of calibration and insight. It takes commitment, mindfulness and reflection.
At Weingarten, we recommend keeping a procrastination and productivity diary. Take an inventory of your habits and life. When, how, how often, and in what patterns do you procrastinate? It reveals what you value, what you crave, where the redundancies are, which gates (e.g. activities, tasks, relationships) require opening up…
A strategic, intentional and mindful reflection on procrastination may actually help us to “march by our own drumbeat”, with the result being self-knowledge, awareness and acceptance instead of criticism and guilt. So, “What’s your favorite form of procrastination?”
By Staff Writer: Min Derry, Learning Instructor